Why are “Yellow” trucks orange?

This one’s been bothering me since I was a kid… You’re driving down the highway when you see a truck with “YELLOW” emblazoned all over the side of it. Except “YELLOW” is sitting in a big old field of orange. And the cab of the truck is bright orange too. What’s the deal?

Yellow Orange Truck

Image Credit: Cam Vilay on Flickr

As it turns out, Yellow actually started out as a taxi company… with (you guessed it) yellow taxis. Though sources disagree on the specifics, it’s pretty clear that one Cleve Harrell started a taxi service in Oklahoma City sometime around 1910. Wanting to differentiate himself from the other taxis in the area, he began painting his Model T Ford taxis yellow in order to attract attention. (Although Harrell seems to be the first to have painted a taxi cab yellow, it was John Hertz who popularized yellow taxis nationwide.)

Yellow Model T

“You can have any color you want, as long as you’re willing to paint it yourself.” – Henry Ford
(Image Credit: Lars-Göran Lindgren Sweden)

The scheme worked well and, after a few years, Harrell wanted to expand the business. He didn’t have the capital to make it happen, so he asked his brother, A. J. Harrell, to invest. The other Mr. Harrell got on board, and the brothers opened a joint venture. The “Yellow Cab and Transit Company” would be a hybrid taxi cab operator and freight-hauling service.

Unfortunately, the brothers didn’t exactly get along very well over the years. Again, sources disagree as to whether they were fighting over business or women, but it’s pretty clear they weren’t too happy with each other. So, they dissolved the partnership. Cleve took the taxi cab half of the business, which he eventually sold off. A. J. took over the trucking side of the operation, which he started to build into the major corporation we know today.

So that explains where the name “yellow” came from… the joint venture was named for Cleve Harrell’s yellow taxi cabs, and the name stuck even after the original Yellow Company was split apart. But why the orange? I’ll explain, after a quick break for a cool YouTube video.

The orange color for the trucks and logo was a matter of pure practicality. In 1929, A. J. Harrell started to get concerned about road safety. So, he asked the DuPont corporation to figure out what color would be most visible on the highway. DuPont concluded that “swamp holly orange” would be the safest color to paint the Yellow trucking company’s vehicles. Without so much as batting an eyelash, Harrell went for it… and the Yellow trucking company has been paintings its trucks (and logos) orange ever since.

Additional interesting notes:

  • The swamp holly is a rare form of holly tree that grows in the Southeastern US and which produces dull reddish-orange berries in the fall.
  • The company is now formally named “YRC Worldwide” after a 2006-2009 acquisition/merger with Roadway (which, conveniently, also had orange trucks).
  • As I mention above, there’s a lot of disagreement about company history. At least some of this seems to be related to the disagreement between the Harrell brothers. The YRC site, for example, doesn’t even mention Clevel Harrell’s role in starting the business… That’s almost a 100-year grudge!

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